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CHILD APPROVED: How Boulder’s Kids Envisioned the City’s Most Popular Nature Play Installation

About the Author

Yvette Bowden is a mom and the Director of Community Vitality, Parks & Recreation in Boulder, Colorado. Yvette has served as a Board Member of the national City Parks Alliance for the past decade.

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At the base of the Rocky Mountains with parks, paths and other amenities serving over 100,000 residents, 30,000 University of Colorado students and millions of visitors each year, Boulder is a pretty fun city.

But despite the adoration of its climbing, running, cycling, walking and swimming devotees, the city’s bustling Central Park was showing its age and in dire need of a refresh. Over several years, a vision for Boulder’s reimagined Civic Area (which includes Central Park) was developed. A Master Plan was approved by City Council. The first phase of area redevelopment would call the community toward its “creek at the core,” refreshing 26 acres of urban parkland along Boulder Creek bound by the municipal campus. 

But Boulder’s Parks & Recreation team wanted the critical input of some of the city’s most important residents when considering the Master Plan’s access to nature goals. They wanted to hear from Boulder’s kids. 

Working in collaboration with the design firm Tom Leader Studios, the city engaged Growing Up Boulder, a local nonprofit, to assist in reaching and engaging area youth. Established in 2009 as a partnership between the city, Boulder Valley School District, and the University of Colorado, Growing Up Boulder aims to make the city an exemplary child and youth-friendly community empowering young people to participate in local issues that affect their lives. 

Between 2012 and 2014, Growing Up Boulder worked with 225 Boulder children soliciting input to inspire and contribute to the design. The children participated in design charrettes and shared their ideas. They asked for a giant bridge to look over into the creek, landings along Boulder Creek with rocks to climb on and places to stick their feet in the water, a ‘practice’ mountain to help kids learn how to climb, a treehouse, a slide accessed by rope, a water feature so you could make a dam with stones and sand. And, of course, tons of trees, bees, and flowers to help the environment. 

The project took roughly a year to construct and was funded with a special tax, department capital funds and a generous donation arranged by the department’s nonprofit partner, the PLAY Boulder Foundation.

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One year later, the park includes an incredible nature play area and many of the features the kids requested. It is teeming with native pollinator-friendly flowers. The nature play area draws folks to Boulder’s downtown and compliments the Boulder Main Library. 

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“It didn’t take very long for the kids to figure things out” offered Jeff Haley, Parks & Recreation Planning, Design and Engagement Manager.  “Once the ribbon was cut, they knew exactly how to find their way across the space …no instructions required.”  And the area keeps getting better with the addition of waste stations, a donated water-bottle filling station and signage providing information on the importance of bees and native plants. The area also features more seating requested by the grown-ups now spending more time over tea or coffee from the library’s café.

“It’s fun to watch the older kids help the smaller ones to the top of the slide or to see the pile of muddy shoes just before the kids head home on a hot day.” 

—Jeff Haley, Parks & Recreation Planning, Design and Engagement Manager

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Twenty-one students from Whittier International Elementary School returned for the grand opening celebration on May 6, 2018. The celebration allowed for a reunion of the now sixth graders (ages 11-12) and their reflection. Outreach was coordinated by Growing Up Boulder and the student’s former teacher. Over cookies and milk, kids provided a resounding review through a brief survey. One hundred percent of the students agreed or strongly agreed that “it was important for students to be included in the Civic Area Project to be asked for their opinions”.  Nearly three-quarters of the students agreed or strongly agreed that “working on the Civic Area project has inspired them to be more involved in the community.”  The students reported seeing their input reflected in the park’s final features, sharing that improvements were in 100% “alignment with their thoughts on active play” and 91% in “alignment in nature play features”.

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Upkeep by the department is aided by volunteers and visitors (young and old) who are happy to help pick up after themselves keeping the space safe and clean for year-round fun and adventure. An average of sixty children participates in weekly nature play curricula offered by Parks & Recreation and the Library during the spring and summer months. Kids come from across the community to enjoy a new book, or performance in the library’s theater, followed by outside fun and adventure with their friends or a special event on the park’s Great Lawn.

Along with the Civic Area project, Boulder Parks and Recreation has refreshed roughly 14 other parks across the community since 2014, sprinkling beloved nature play features across the city. From the improved Evert Pierson Kids’ Fishing Pond where kids can catch (and return) swimming friends, to Arapahoe Ridge’s ‘Rock Park’ and the build-your-bridge and water/sand features at Christensen Park, the department is adding adventure everywhere it can through use of natural materials, downed tree trunks and rocks kids can traverse on their way to meet area wildlife along the city’s ponds and streambeds. Next year, Boulder will welcome more adventure when it opens a new inclusive playground at the reservoir’s beachfront and begins work on the possibilities presented by two other neighborhood parks, one along an established wetland area and one that will feature an ideal space to learn about the American prairie. 

Boulder’s Civic Area is a great space, in a great town known for the collective love of sport, healthy, relaxed lifestyle and respect for the environment. The best part is that even more kids will have a chance to share their vision with the City of Boulder soon. 

Photo credit: City of Boulder

Editor’s note: Join the upcoming Cities Connecting Children to Nature webinarEnhancing Public Spaces with Nature Play scheduled for Thursday, October 24  2-3pm CT / 3-4pm ET learn more about how cities are installing nature play spaces to foster outdoor learning and play, improve children’s health and wellness, activate parks, and promote everyday connection to nature. Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN), a joint initiative of the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the Children & Nature Network, helps cities increase equitable access to nature to improve the wellbeing of children. CCCN supports a cohort of 18 cities with technical assistance, grants and peer learning for cities to implement nature connection strategies.

Additional Reading & Resources 
Boulder Parks and Recreation
Growing Up Boulder
The PLAY Boulder Foundation
CHILDREN AT SERIOUS PLAY: Connecting to the Natural World in an Interactive Nature Space
Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Students With Vitamin N
The Real Nature Channel: Time for Kids to Tune In

WATCH THE GARDENS GROW: In Southern California, New School Gardens Help Children Learn, Connect, and Thrive
Children & Nature Network’s Green Schoolyards Initiative
C&NN’s Research Library, including a report on research on nature and learning

 


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